By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports
As former Boise Mayor H. Brent Coles prepares once again to enter the political world, the disgraced politician is staying mum on an agreement he made with a judge to not run for elected office in the Gem State.
According to court documents, Coles once agreed to be “disqualified indefinitely and permanently from holding any office in the state of Idaho.”
That promise was made in 2003 after Coles pleaded guilty to one count of misusing public funds and one count of presenting a fraudulent voucher while serving as Boise’s mayor.
At the time, 4th District Judge Thomas Neville told Coles he was “disqualified indefinitely and permanently” from running for elected office in the judge’s initial withholding judgment and probation order.
In Idaho, these agreements work like a contract. Coles agreed to the terms to receive probation.
Idaho Reports reached out to Judge Neville through colleagues and the Idaho courts to interpret the order but were unable to reach him.
Idaho Reports also reached out to Coles via Facebook Messenger and asked him what his understanding of the probation agreement was and received this comment: .
Essentially, Coles provided us with a new way to say “no comment.”
During the sentencing hearing back in 2004, Coles was more verbose.
“I apologize to taxpayers and citizens of this community in whose trust I broke,” Coles said. “So I want you to know I accept full responsibility for that.”
Coles continued: “I am aware of the pain and anguish that has occurred in this community. It will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
News coverage at the time characterized Coles as penitent, aware and thankful for the mercy Neville showed him.
Tammy Rice, the Boise Human Resources Director at the time, received a harsher sentence from Judge Nevile, despite playing arguably a smaller role. She was the only woman implicated in the scandal with her two male coworkers and was the only one who went to jail in handcuffs.
According to the Idaho Statesman at the time, Coles reported to jail within 30 days at his leisure.
Judge Neville pointed to the acts of repentance and acknowledgment of guilt as the reason for Coles receiving a lighter sentence then Rice.
This month, Coles formally filed to run for Boise Mayor. He will be on the ballot again when Boise citizens next vote on their chief executive officer.
The Secretary of State and county clerks do not have mug shots on their wall of people who can’t run for office. The official vetting of candidates is equivalent to the vetting of voters.
“We confirm their voter registration and any other statutory requirements necessary to run for that office,” said Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane. “Often this is confirmed by the voter registration information.”
Neither McGrane, nor any other clerk, research the record of a candidate to find out if a judge, a governor, a president, or a spouse said they are unfit for office.
“That’s not our job, that’s your job,” said several people who I talked to for this story.
What a judge said to or about a politician has no bearing on an election in Idaho if the voter registration does not concur.
Here is a possible reason why Mayor H. Brent Coles gets to ignore what 4th District Judge Thomas Neville told him: Sixteen days after the order the state changed the order.
The reason for the change appears to be that Judge Neville overreached his jurisdiction.
“The Court cannot enforce a condition beyond the time that it has jurisdiction,” said Tara Malek, owner of the Idaho law firm Smith + Malek. “Here, the court retained jurisdiction over Mr. Cole for three years.”
“Indefinitely and permanently” is longer than three years.
“As a result of completing the terms,” said Idaho’s former U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson, “my view is that the condition of not running for office is no longer binding, if it ever was.”
So that means Coles is legally allowed to run for office. It was not within Judge Neville’s power to stop him. The moral and ethical questions, however, are left to the voters.
“(Coles) so abused his position of power that a court felt compelled to prevent him from holding public office.” said Malek. “To me, it says this person was a danger to the public.”
We all deserve a second chance and 16 years is a long time. As Coles steps back into public life, it might be useful for voters to remember what he said when he left it.
“I was elected by the citizens of this community to do the right thing every day with every dollar and with every penny — every ounce of trust they gave to me,” Coles said. “I broke that trust, and I know it, and I accept that responsibility. I blame no one else but myself.”